Life and history in Vigo, located in the Rias Baixas region of Galicia’s Southwest Atlantic coast, are dominated by the sea. Oyster banks provide the famous La Piedra with the freshest and fattest oysters, cruise ships dock, container ships load and unload, and elegant leisure craft sway in Vigo’s giant port, next to a modern bridge spanning the bay. In the 17th century, Castro Fortress tried to guard (unsuccessfully) the entrance from the Atlantic against pirates and invading nations like England, France, and even the Turks. The narrow streets and houses of Casco Vello preserve the lifestyle of fishermen and sailors, pristine Islas Cies are just an hour’s boat ride away out in the Atlantic and all is being watched over by a towering statue of the Virgin Mary, Maria de las Afueras, carrying a tall ship in one hand and a sextant in the other.
Stroll Around Casco Vello
Casco Vello, or "Old Town," consists of one- or two-story stone houses, often leaning at a precarious angles towards each other and divided by narrow streets, sloping down the hill to the old port. But, there are some elegant townhouses too, making for an interesting mix. Many are now art and craft shops, displaying their wares hooked to the outside walls. Casco Vello has developed into a popular quarter to start a night out, due to a rising amount of bars and restaurants. Locals tend to meet on the steps of the 19th century church of Santa Maria.
Discover History in the Castro Fortress
The fortress, which sits on top of the now disappeared ancient city walls, was built in 1665 to defend Vigo against attacks from the English Navy and Portugal. Embattled many times, it was finally re-conquered by the citizens of Vigo themselves in 1809. Climbing up to the castle gives splendid overviews of the city, the port and even as far as the Islas Cies. Within the castle complex are lovely well-tended gardens, flower beds and trees, predominantly Galicia’s national flower: the camellia in all colors.
Sail Off to Islas Cíes
Islas Cíes is an uninhabited archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean in front of the Vigo estuary. What makes them so special is the contrast between a very rough cliff landscape in the west and two pristine, long, white beaches in the east. One of them, Playa de Rodas, is often regarded as one of the best beaches in the world. Cars are not allowed on the island and protection of the environment is taken very seriously. It’s an ideal day trip, departing by ferry from the terminal in Vigo. Clearly marked hiking paths are color-coded according the difficulty and lead along the cliffs to a lighthouse on the furthest point. They are color coded according to difficulty. It’s also a great place for a (kid-friendly) swim or sunbathing. There are no hotels on the island and just a small coffee shop at the pier where the ferry docks. If desired, visitors can stay overnight at a campsite which rents tents and sleeping bags.
Visit the Museum of the Sea
Vigo’s Museum of the Sea is located in an old canned food factory with a very modern design. The museum is dedicated to fishery and all activities related to the sea, in particular the ecosystem of the Rias Baxas. There is an aquarium and many explanatory videos. The latest activity is underwater heritage research with the aim to eventually house all recovered shipwrecks of Galicia, especially the many ships that came to grief along the notorious Coast of Death.
Slurp Oysters at La Piedra
With so many oyster beds at the city's doorstep, it’s no surprise that oysters are Vigo’s specialty. The best and most fun way to sample them is at the many stalls in La Piedra which forms part of the port. Grab a plate, go from stall to stall, make your selection, and sit down at the rather rickety chairs and tables, squeeze lemon juice over them and slurp. For those who can’t eat oysters raw, there are several small restaurants just behind the stalls that will cook them for you.
Understand Modern Art in MARCO
MARCO stands for Museum of Contemporary Art and is worth a visit for two reasons: it’s located in a former courthouse and prison right in the center of the city and it’s a museum with no permanent exhibition. Flexibility and innovation are the keywords here, which is why this museum features shows, cultural events, workshops, and temporary exhibits. The remarkable glass roofs make a striking juxtaposition to the rather stern façade.
Galicia is known for plenty of rainfall which accounts for the lush vegetation. There are however hot summer days which invite to sunbathing and swimming on one of the 45 beaches. With more than 5,000 feet of ocean frontage, Samil's Beach is among the longest and most popular. There are plenty of leisure facilities and a promenade which allows views over the city and Islas cies in the distance. If it gets too hot, pine trees provide shade.
Marvel at Ensanche
Ensanche is the most elegant district in Vigo. During the 19th century, wealth derived from the canning industry and rich entrepreneurs built fabulous Belle Époque town houses which line the pedestrian streets of Ensanche and the leafy Alameda Park.
Take a Harbor Tour Around Vigo Bay
If you don’t have the time to make it to Islas Cíes, you can enjoy a touch of the Atlantic, a view of the busy port, the Vigo skyline, and the imposing span bridge with a harbor tour. It’s a much shorter than the ferry to Islas Cies, but still a great photo opportunity.
Watch Over the Sailors with Maria de las Afueras
A few miles further south and closer to the border with Portugal lies the small seaside resort of Baiona. On a peninsula stands the medieval Castelo de Montereal, now an excellent parador with lovely gardens. Up in the mountains looms a massive statue of the Virgin Mary, called Maria de las Afueras, patron and protector of all sailors and fisherman. She holds a tall ship in her outstretched hand into which you can actually climb.
In the small port there is a replica of the Pinta, one of the three caravels in which Columbus set out on his voyage in 1493. A visit gives a vivid impression of what life on board such a small ship was like for the valiant explorers.